New York Times
By Jeremy W. Peters
March 9, 2016
After testing the bounds of vulgarity, factuality and decency, the most surreal presidential campaign in modern times now arrives in the state where hanging chads, romantic dalliances and a mishmash of voting allegiances have made and unmade political careers.
This is Florida, where campaign money flows like sugar cane runoff and the Republican Party is planning to make what could be its last stand against a man, Donald J. Trump, who embodies many of the state’s stereotypes — its love of a year-round suntan, its obsession with golf, its preening ostentation.
The state’s winner-take-all primary on Tuesday figures to be a climactic moment. Mr. Trump’s insurgent candidacy faces the biggest test yet of whether it is built to endure. Marco Rubio, Florida’s junior senator, will have to decide whether he can stay in the race if he loses. And Senator Ted Cruz of Texas will see how far his efforts to chip away at the support of both rivals can go.
A glimpse of the antics that lie ahead came on Tuesday night when Mr. Trump took a victory lap, after winning Hawaii, Michigan and Mississippi, at his golf club in Jupiter, Fla. He set out on display Trump-branded steaks, wine and water and talked up the Jack Nicklaus-designed course. “I love Florida. Special place,” he said.
The special place will have its fill of politicians over the next week. Univision will host a Democratic debate on Wednesday night, and CNN a Republican debate on Thursday night, both in Miami.
But with little drama expected in the Democratic race — Hillary Clinton is comfortably ahead here in polls — all the attention is on the Republican contest.
Mr. Rubio, in the fight of his life, is trawling the state, from a paella cookout in the Cuban enclave of Hialeah, near Miami, to a high-dollar fund-raiser in Palm Beach to Sarasota and St. Augustine. Mr. Cruz also plans to visit Miami, Mr. Rubio’s home base.
It will be an expensive race, with Florida’s 10 media markets and $12 million in ads swamping televisions in the final two weeks before voting.
It will be bitter, too, with many supporters of the former governor, Jeb Bush, refusing to back Mr. Rubio. Some are threatening to vote for Mr. Bush, who dropped out of the race last month, because his name remains on the ballot.
And it will be a spectacle.
“The guys I see every day are having ministroke episodes,” said David Johnson, a Republican consultant in Tallahassee, the capital, who was supporting Mr. Bush in the presidential race.
In a twist that Mr. Rubio cannot enjoy, much of the anti-establishment anger that he rode to victory in the 2010 midterm elections is now working against him. Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz, who party leaders fear would lead the Republicans to historic defeats in November, are the anti-establishment now.
“It’s a very similar thing,” Mr. Johnson added. “People are angry. They don’t know what they want, but they don’t want what they have right now.”
Every 15 years or so, Florida manages to send a shock through the presidential race, whether in the form of a romantic escapade on a yacht named Monkey Business, which helped sink Gary Hart, or in the form of hanging chads, the half-punched ballots that sent the 2000 election to the United States Supreme Court.
This time, the shock wave is Mr. Trump.
For evidence that this is Mr. Trump’s Republican Party now, look no further than here in the blue-blooded beachhead of Palm Beach. When the local party hosts its annual Lincoln Day dinner this month, a tradition that dates back decades, Mr. Trump will not only headline the event but also host it. His private club Mar-a-Lago is the venue.
Many Republicans here, people who have opened their homes to Rockefellers and Bushes, are getting behind him.
“Have you ever hunted grouse?” asked Byron Thomas, a longtime Palm Beach resident, explaining Mr. Trump’s appeal. Grouse, which he said he hunts on his property near Cooperstown, N.Y., need to be flushed out of the brush before you can shoot them. And to do that, he said, you have to startle them and make them angry. “What Trump has done is he’s flushed out these impostors,” he added.
Sure, the real estate developer has done things that Mr. Thomas found crass, like putting his picture on the water bottles handed out at his golf courses. But he can look past that. “Bob Dole couldn’t win. Mitt Romney couldn’t win. So let’s try something different,” he said.
Many conservatives like Mr. Thomas lost trust in Mr. Rubio shortly after he went to Washington and began working on a bipartisan immigration overhaul plan. His time in the capital, they say, has eroded his anti-establishment credibility.
Florida allows ballots to be cast before Election Day, and the early-voting data contains signs that Mr. Trump should find encouraging. According to an analysis of the more than 600,000 votes that Florida Republicans have already cast, 18 percent came from people who did not vote in November 2012 or in 2014 when Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, was re-elected.
Daniel Smith, the University of Florida political scientist who conducted the analysis, said that number accounted for more than just population growth and could be seen as a sign that Mr. Trump is pulling in new voters, much as he has done in other states.
But not all the data is discouraging for Mr. Rubio. In Miami-Dade County, where Mr. Rubio hopes to make up for the ground Mr. Trump is likely to gain in the more conservative north of the state, Mr. Smith said the rate of Hispanic Republicans participating is above average. That, he said, should be good for Mr. Rubio.
The Rubio campaign’s get-out-the-vote operation beyond Miami has been slow going. One afternoon over the weekend at the Orlando headquarters, which opened only last week, about 20 volunteers were working from lists of likely Rubio voters who had requested absentee ballots and calling them to make sure they had voted. Their surroundings were bleak: the vacant offices of what used to be an architecture firm, the floor littered with broken ceramic tiles and orange cones marking where hazards protruded.
Mr. Cruz announced recently that his campaign had opened 10 offices across the state — a move that seemed aimed at goading Mr. Rubio, since at the time the Rubio campaign had only five formally open. Rubio campaign officials circulated photographs of what they said were the Cruz locations, which looked vacant.
If Mr. Rubio has much of a campaign treasury left, he is not spending it on ads here but rather relying on the “super PAC” backing him for support. The Conservative Solutions PAC placed nearly $6 million in advertising for the two weeks before the primary. Some of that will be spent attacking Mr. Trump, who is already the target of $4 million in negative ads by an array of groups working to take him down.
Even if Republicans were spending more to swamp Mr. Trump in negative ads, it is not clear they would agree on a candidate to support in his place. Mr. Rubio has spoken to Mr. Bush at least twice since Mr. Bush quit the race on Feb. 20. But the campaign has all but written off the possibility that Mr. Bush will endorse him.
Mr. Bush’s friends say some Bush loyalists still feel that Mr. Rubio did not show the respect he should have to the man who helped nurture his career as a young state legislator.
“I talked to Jeb, and he doesn’t have any harsh feelings about this,” said Mel Martinez, the former senator whose seat Mr. Rubio won. “I think he obviously wishes Marco would have been a little more loyal a friend. But what are you going to do?”
“It’s a tough deal,” he added.
Given that absentee votes were circulated before Mr. Bush dropped out, he is still expected to register some support on Primary Day.
“It’s probably going to be at least 2 percent,” said Michael P. McDonald, who studies elections for the University of Florida and the Brookings Institution, basing his assumptions on the results in Texas, where Mr. Bush drew votes even after dropping out, and where voters also have an affinity for the Bush family. In Florida, like in Texas, he said, “they like their Bushes.”
Whether it is the feuding between the Rubio and Bush camps, or Mr. Trump’s outrageousness, or Mr. Rubio’s perceived betrayal of the conservatives who elected him in 2010, Floridians may not agree on much these days. But they all seem to want the primary to end quickly.
“This has been immature and childish. It’s like grade school kids — all the fighting and talking over each other,” said Virgil M. Price II of Palm Beach, who is not sure who he will vote for except that it will not be Mr. Trump. “It’s been horrible."
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